Maggie Smith's Strong Word

Suzanne Goldsmith
Poet Maggie Smith

More than a year before President Donald Trump added the word “shithole” to the pop culture lexicon, Bexley poet Maggie Smith sent that same word out into the world in a very different context. While the president allegedly used the word in an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers to describe the countries from which—to his thinking—undesirable immigrants originate, Smith used the word in verse, and has no trouble admitting it. Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” about a mother’s struggle with how to talk to her children about harsh realities in a troubled world, went viral online in the wake of the June 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub. The poem was subsequently translated into Spanish, Italian, French, German, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam; it was interpreted into a dance in India; it became a plot point in a prime-time television drama; and Public Radio International called it “The Official Poem of 2016.”

Columbus Monthly contacted Smith to learn her thoughts on this new public conversation involving the word.

When the news of Trump’s comments to senators characterizing certain countries as “shitholes” broke, writerSteve Edwards tweeted, “Everybody knows that that’s @maggiesmithpoet’s word.” Is that how you felt when you saw the news?

Not at all. I didn’t even think of “Good Bones” until people on Twitter started pointing it out. My first reaction when I saw the quote about “shithole countries” was something more along the lines of, “Wow, that was a blatantly racist take on immigration.” Many people seemed hung up on the fact that Trump used profanity, which to me completely misses the point. He characterized nations of brown and black people as “shithole countries” and expressed a desire to have more immigrants from countries like Norway—countries that are predominantly white. I can handle profanity. It’s his worldview I find offensive.

In your poem, you used the word to describe a dilapidated house that an imagined real estate agent is trying to sell on the basis of its potential for renovation—its so-called good bones. The agent represents you: a mother who wants to give her children hope in a world that is “at least fifty percent terrible.” The president allegedly used it to describe troubled countries from which he would like to restrict immigration--cutting off, one might say, an avenue of hope. What are your thoughts on the contrast?

In the poem, I wrote, “Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.” Because, yes, the world we live in—and more specifically, the country we call home—is not what it could be. It needs work. I’m interested in making good on the promises I’ve made my children: safety, equality, health, and happiness. I’m interested in living in a country with a government that is committed to making good on those promises for its citizens, and for people who want to become citizens. If we want to talk about “shithole countries,” we have to talk about countries where children’s healthcare isn’t prioritized, where the prison system is overloaded, where the water isn’t safe to drink, where the police can kill unarmed citizens without consequence. We need to look in the mirror.

How did you go about selecting this word when you were writing “Good Bones”? 

The word just came naturally, to be honest, as a word we use when describing a place that is rundown. I think the word tempers the emotion and helps keep the poem grounded. One reader said that she thought it helped give the poem its “teeth,” and I very much like that idea. 

I noticed that when the Washington Post profiled you and the poem a year ago, they effectively “bleeped” the word. Did other outlets struggle? Did anybody ask you to change it?

Most newspapers in the United States edited the word with asterisks, as in “sh**hole.” Some international papers, however, did not. When The Ohio State University had me read the poem for a video on the university’s homepage, they simply silenced the word, and I was absolutely fine with that, given the wide age range of the potential audience. When the poem was featured on the “Good Bones” episode of the CBS prime-time drama Madam Secretary, I worked with the CBS legal team to come up with an alternative. “Hellhole” was the compromise, and again, I was fine with that. But it seems now that the president of the United States has said the word, maybe the poem can exist publicly as it is? We’ll see.

Since President Trump used the word, many outlets (including the Columbus Dispatch) have begun using it freely. Will it lose its power?

I don’t worry that Trump’s use of the word will lessen its resonance in “Good Bones,” and frankly this is the least of my worries. My hope, ultimately, is that Trump’s use of the word will be galvanizing.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you can tell something bad is happening in the world when your poem is surging online. How is it doing these days?

Yes, the poem is shared widely whenever there is a terrorist attack, shooting or tragedy somewhere in the world, which is something I’m still grappling with. I’m grateful for every day that passes when large groups of people aren’t grieving together.

Will you use the word again? Or is it now Trump’s word?

No word belongs to anyone. That’s the beauty of language: it’s inherently free. And while I don’t see myself using “shithole” in another poem, who knows? The poems choose their own words. I’m here to write them down.

Maggie Smith is the author of, most recently, Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017) and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015). Her poems appear in the New York Times, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, AGNI, the Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Bexley, Ohio.